So this is what offensive football looks like on the other side of the tracks.
The Patriots did improve to 10-0 on Monday night, but their 20-13 win over the Bills wasn’t pretty. This is what it must feel like to watch the other 31 NFL teams try to score points.
The Patriots made offensive football look easy through the first seven games of the season. Tom Brady couldn’t be stopped, his playmakers all put up huge numbers, and scoring 30 points was the team’s birthright.
But the Patriots’ offense is in real trouble right now, from top to bottom. Mostly because of injuries.
They’re starting to get decimated on that side of the football. They finished the game with just two healthy receivers — Brandon LaFell and Chris Harper, who was just called up from the practice squad. We already know Julian Edelman broke his foot and is out for a while. On Monday night, Aaron Dobson hurt his ankle making a circus catch over the middle, and Danny Amendola suffered a knee injury. And Keshawn Martin missed his fifth straight game with a hamstring injury.
On top of it, Dion Lewis is out for the year with a knee injury. And while the offensive line did get tackles Sebastian Vollmer and Marcus Cannon back on Monday, it had significant communication issues trying to pick up the Bills’ zone blitzes.
Brady said the personnel losses aren’t an excuse, but of course they are. You can’t just lose Edelman, Lewis, and Amendola and shuffle your offensive line every week and expect to keep on sailing smoothly.
“There were a lot of plays out there where we didn’t necessarily do our job well,” Brady said after throwing for 277 yards, a touchdown and an interception. “I think we can play better, and I think some of the things we didn’t do well has nothing to do with missing some other guys.”
The Patriots finished with 356 total yards, and every one of them was a grind. They went 4 for 14 on third downs, only 1 for 3 in the red zone, and couldn’t figure out the Bills’ pass rush.
This was the same Bills defense that allowed 40 points and 507 yards to the Patriots back in Week 2.
Rex Ryan and his defense deserve credit for making adjustments this time around. Last time, he tried rushing Brady with only his front four, and Brady sliced and diced the Bills’ defense for 466 passing yards on 59 attempts.
This time, Ryan did a masterful job of zone blitzing Brady to oblivion. Brady was sacked only one time, but he was hit a whopping 10 times as the Patriots’ offensive linemen struggled to identify who was blitzing and who was dropping into coverage. Brady’s favorite target was named “Turf,” as he slammed pass after pass into the ground to avoid sacks.
The Bills also did a nice job of setting up a wall in the short middle part of the field. They gave Brady the 4-yard throws to Amendola underneath, then swarmed to the football and didn’t give up many yards after the catch. They also dared the Patriots to beat them deep, and Brady couldn’t do it. Brady has never been a deep-ball aficionado, but it’s really not his forte when he’s chucking it deep to a practice squad guy like Harper.
Monday night’s game was a nice statement for the Bills’ defense, but this was really about the Patriots going the wrong direction on offense. They called a draw on third and 10 after having no confidence in the offensive line’s ability to protect Brady. They couldn’t pick up one measly first down inside the final three minutes to run out the clock, getting stuffed on two straight runs.
And they couldn’t get the ball to Rob Gronkowski without Edelman and Lewis opening up the field. Brady threw seven passes toward Gronk, but completed only two for 37 yards — and one of them was an unbelievable throw-and-catch for 25 yards that was dropped perfectly between two defenders.
Amendola proved trusty in his first game as Edelman’s fill in, catching 9 of 12 passes for 117 yards and a huge 41-yarder that led to the game-winning touchdown. But, naturally, Amendola hurt himself on the play, ending his night and putting his status for Sunday’s showdown at Denver in question.
The offense is going in the wrong direction, scoring fewer than 30 points in each of the last three weeks. Brady completed only 20 of 39 passes, the Patriots had a season-low 18 first downs, and for the first time all season had more punts (seven) than drives that ended in points (four).
But it’s not because the play-calling is inconsistent, or the quarterback isn’t seeing the field, or the Patriots are turning the ball over (although Brady has now thrown an interception in three straight games after throwing just one in the first seven).
It’s all about injuries right now, and they are decimating the offense. It’s just not the same offense with Scott Chandler, James White, and Harper out there instead of Edelman, Lewis, and Amendola. The running game isn’t as effective (85 yards on 22 carries Monday), the field is more condensed, Gronk is well-covered, and the opposing defense has free reign to tee off on Brady.
“We lost a lot of guys, and we’ve lost quite a few guys the last three weeks,” Brady said. “You get limited pretty quickly with the things you can do.”
Give the Patriots credit, though. They didn’t make any fatal mistakes on offense, took advantage of a few Buffalo coverage breakdowns (most notably on White’s 20-yard touchdown reception), and let their defense do most of the work, holding the Bills to 319 total yards. A bad day of offense for the Patriots is still pretty good for most teams.
We’re just not used to seeing the Patriots look like most teams. But injuries are starting to make the Patriots look unusually pedestrian.